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August 16, 2007

I've downgraded myself to a Crikey squatter. For the moment I am quite happy to squat and receive freebie email. Yesterday's refers to The 7.30 Report going public about Peter Costello shooting his mouth off over dinner with three senior Canberra journalists in 2005 on his Howard challenge that never eventuated.

Those three journalists agreed not to print the story when Costello pulled it afterwards saying it was 'off the record.' Crikey makes an interesting comment:

But Costello's reported words are important this time for other reasons, not because of what the Treasurer said, but because of the decision the journalists involved made not to report it. Here is proof positive that journalists, when pushed by the authority figures whose affection and fellowship they crave, are happy to put two things to one side: first, their duty of care to their reading public and the trust given to our democracy's fourth estate and second, their sense of professional competitiveness. What a supine, self-serving, clubbable lot.

What we are offered by this event is an insight into the drip feeding and the media management--the secrets of the Canberra Gallery are being disclosed.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 10:40 AM | | Comments (11)
Comments

Comments

Gary,
there are different levels to this story: the Liberal Party leadership tensions; Costello's character; the way the Canberra Press Gallery operates in terms of background information and off the record interviews; and the journalistic ethics about leaking what was said at the very jolly dinner Waters Edge resturant.

The latter is addressed by Ian Smith, executive chairman of public affairs, corporate and financial communications firm Gavin Anderson & Company (Australia) in Canberra, in The Australian. He says:

So, having agreed not to talk about any dinner conversation from two years ago, all three diners had, on the eve of a federal election, suddenly gone on the record. All had broken one of the cardinal rules of journalism.That rule, put most simply, is what is said off the record stays off the record.True, we hear the Treasurer may have told the journalists initially that they could have the information as "informed background" only for his press secretary to phone them the following day and say that it was off the record.

Smith comments that there is nothing unusual in that chain of events. In itself, it is no more than a reflection on human nature. Most of us would have backtracked on unkind comments, whether about friends or relatives or in our professional capacities about colleagues, to try later to make sure it was never known by those we had impugned. He then adds:
Whether or not one likes Costello, the point here is that he had not broken the agreement. Trust between the press and politicians had been threatened by journalists themselves.

It's an odd position to take as Smith goes on to say that a journalist should avoid becoming the story and in doing so Brissenden has ditched the cloak of alleged objectivity and sought to be an opinion mover and shaker. Again, the public did not need to know about any dinner conversation; it was an off-the-record discussion.

Drip-feeding obviously refers to the fertilization of the small minds of the voting mushrooms by pollies and the medja.

Was ever thus!

If the journalists are going to scrap the off the record statements why not scrap the "not revealing sources" too.

It's not as though any of the journos in question are either green or stupid enough to do what they did without thinking about the consequences.

They got together for the dinner, got together again and agreed who would run it first, got together again to pull the story, and it's a fair bet they got together before they went public with it.

For my money, the last one would have been the get together worth hearing about.

Les,
The situation is more complex than what you imply. The reporters went along believing the dinner was "on background", which normally means the information they gathered could be published, (ie.,quote it, assert it as fact) but not attributed to Costello.

Costello's Press secretary rang the next day or to say that it was all "off the record " and that you can't print any of it. The three reporters folded.

Costello is now claiming that dinner was "off the record". Before that he said:

I don't know where The Bulletin got that from, certainly not from me. I must say when I read some of these things I wonder where the journalists get them from. They generally speak to somebody who has spoken to somebody who was down the back of a pub.

Costello is trashing a convention.

Yes Costello looks like a liar in all this. He should of come clean when he was first asked.

But the journalists involved now have flashing lights on their heads saying "Dont tell me anything off the record".
Regardless of what the rules were on the night they all agreed the next day to make what was said off the record and they breached that agreement.
Flog them all!

Les,
no, it is more complex than that. The 3 journalists involved --Daley, Wright and Brissenden--- agreed to keep silent for two years. Even when Paul Daley alluded to the dinner in The Bulletin two weeks ago he kept the agreement.

Daley wrote that Costello said: " He can't win; I can. We can but he can't," This quote was followed was by he is said to have told his supporters and he purportedly said

The quote sat there, on the record, for almost two full weeks before the treasurer declared it to be not only untrue, but also effectively a fabrication.

It was only after Costello disputed Daley's reporting this week that Daley, Brissenden and Wright decided that the public record had to be corrected.

You have to wonder about Costello at times.

Lyn,
The relationship between pollie and Canberra Press Gallery journalist is a tricky one. The politicians need to get their story out there but they can't do it themselves; on the other hand, the journalists want to publish as much as they can, but are reliant on sources for information.

So political "sources" will not trust sensitive information to just anyone--they need to trust the journalist and to gain the trust the journalist need to get to know their sources. Hence dinner in resturants.

My guess is that last meeting --the one they got together before they went public with the story was one about trust. Daley says that they decided to act when

Costello only - only - rubbished my story when he was asked about it during a soft TV interview to mark his 50 th birthday.

John Lehmann, Editor-in-Chief of the Bulletin, explains why Paul Daley was right to reveal the Treasurer's leadership plot thus:
Costello's vitriolic denial of Daley's account on Channel Nine's Today show on Tuesday prompted two other highly regarded journalists - Michael Brissenden, of the ABC's 7.30 Report, and Tony Wright, a former Bulletin writer now working for The Age - to back up Daley by reporting that the Treasurer made such comments to the three of them over a restaurant dinner in 2005.

So the meeting between the three journos would be about the ethics of trust and the conventions of politics.



A lot of people will argue that what Costello said back then was quite true.

It's an indication of Costello's fading political star that the journalists now feel immune enough from consequence to open up over what they were told, regardless of the gathering's unilateral designation by the treasurer as "private". He won't be around as treasurer after the elction, regardless of who wins. The hope would be that he does as Fraser did in 1970, after being cut adrift by Gorton.
As for confidentiality, Costello should have known two things above any other person. Firstly how far to trust Howard.
And if he didn't want to be "bitten", to not swim so complacently with scribbling "piranha".

Paul,
Matt Price in The Australian today, in commenting on this Beltway issue, says:

And: